Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Mideast Policy Choices

Letting the locals take the lead, promoting common standards, inducing rather than coercing add up to a wiser U.S. Mideast policy.

Four alternative Mideast strategic scenarios present themselves to U.S. decision-makers:

  • Outright empire
  • Israeli military dominance
  • Watching the rise of a hostile Iran
  • Turkey the Broker.

Each of these artificial scenarios, viewed in isolation, has all manner of negative features and unacceptable constraints. In brief, none constitutes a good strategic plan for the U.S.

The imperial dream of the neo-cons already looks worn around the edges, with the U.S. trying to pull back from an Iraqi adventure that was insanely expensive and seems to have put a grinning Iranian Cheshire cat in every palm tree, getting bloodied in Afghanistan, facing endless instability in Pakistan, being made a fool of by Israel’s political right, and losing ground even in traditionally friendly little Lebanon.

But the old Cold War policy of relying on the unsinkable Israeli aircraft carrier is dated and unimaginative. Israel’s increasingly blatant reliance on force, evidently declining foreign policy skill, rising terrorism by illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and creep toward fascism are making Israel more of a security albatross than a security advantage for the U.S.

Yet, watching a hostile and insecure Iran emerge without learning to work with it is surely a bad deal, while reliance on Turkey to keep the peace is simplistic, to put it mildly. Thus, the real question comes down to a choice between persuading a hostile Iran to cut a deal and learning to live with an independent but reasonably friendly and moderate Turkish leadership. The good news is that going with the latter also advances the former: the most effective method for moderating Tehran’s behavior may be to reward Ankara for emerging as a moderate but independent power center, thus demonstrating to Tehran that Washington will not demand subservience as the price of cooperation.

Erdogan in Lebanon continues repositioning Turkey:
Does it [Israel] think it can use the most modern weapons, phosphorus munitions and cluster bombs to kill children in Gaza and then expect us to remain silent?," AFP reported Erdogan as saying. "We will not be silent and we will support justice by all means available to us. [Haaretz]

Teaching Tehran this lesson will of course come at a cost. An independent Ankara may well not tolerate Israel’s destruction of Palestinian society, much less its brutal and immoral policy of collective punishment of 1.5 million innocent Gazans to punish them for supporting Hamas. Such refusal to tolerate Israel’s sins might well be to the long-term advantage of the average Israeli citizen, but it will require painful adjustments to the all-too-cozy Washington-Tel Aviv axis nonetheless. Washington will have to let Ankara teach it to demand that Tel Aviv keep its commitments and to speak to global political Islam in the language not of force but conciliation.
The Wrong Way to Negotiate With Iran
The US undertook its engagement strategy with Iran with the clear conviction that it would fail. At the same time, it was preparing (and disseminating in private) an alternative pressure strategy. This is the most serious indictment of all.
According to the record, the Obama administration was briefing allies almost from the start — and before Iran had even had a chance to respond to offers of engagement — that we expected this initiative to fail and that we were actively preparing the pressure track that would immediately follow.
Iran could hardly have been unaware of all this, so the chance that they would respond favorably — even before the contested election in June 2009 and the brutal crackdown that followed — was essentially zero. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that Obama was never sincere about his engagement strategy. It has yet to be tried.--Gary Sick commenting on WikiLeaks revelations about Obama's policy toward Iran

The payoff for such self-control on Washington’s part could be a revolutionary breakthrough in Mideast affairs that would leave the region with three power centers—Israel, Turkey, and Iran—plus one or two others not far behind. Iranians advocating hostile self-reliance will be increasingly on the defensive domestically as Ankara emerges to regional leadership. Meanwhile, the institution of a “Turkish peace” in the Levant combined with the pullback of Israel to within its legal borders will undermine any Iranian efforts to exploit Levantine discord to its own advantage. Simultaneously, the ability of the Israeli right to manipulate the U.S. for its own partisan advantage will decline.  All three trends will enhance U.S. national security even as U.S. costs and risks are minimized.

In a well balanced and relatively cooperative Mideast environment with multiple power centers, Washington would effortlessly occupy the seat of real power – “effortlessly” in the sense that everyone would be competing for the support of the distant outsider. Without soldiers dying on the ground and without offering such a tempting target for troublemakers, Washington would find low-cost diplomatic avenues for exercising influence far more effective than it does today, when it is seen as invader and highly biased proxy for Zionist colonialism.

Washington should look carefully at a fifth scenario as the basis for its Mideast policy: multilateral independence. In a multilateral Mideast of states independent of U.S. control, Washington runs the risk of suffering nasty surprises but will also benefit from an environment in which all parties see advantages to cooperating. Washington’s challenge in such an environment will be transformed from struggling to uphold a house of cards facing a political whirlwind to promoting the positive-sum aspects so that all actors will prefer to accommodate everyone else.

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